The Dubious Influence of Music


by Doris Lessing


...The streets I went walking through [in Salisbury, Rhodesia � now Zimbabwe], night after night, for weeks, for months, with never a thought of danger: now it would be impossible for a young woman, black or white, to go strolling there so casually. They are dangerous streets at night, these days.

Now every house is locked and double-locked and guarded by dogs, all the windows are barred, the verandahs made into cages.

Inside these little fortresses black and white families watch television, the same programmes in every house. The cars standing along the street edges are locked and chained. Nothing was locked in the old days, not houses, not cars. A young white woman might go wandering around until long after midnight. And in London, when I at last got there, I used to walk for miles by myself at night, and it never crossed my mind to be afraid. I do not believe that what has happened in our cities - and in the countryside too - has much to do with the political or racial complexion of governments.

Something else is at work.


What is it?

Is it possible - and I know this mad hypothesis is asking for ridicule - that we are poisoning ourselves with music? Our lot, my contemporaries, from our adolescence on, we listened to dance music, day and night, and it was all of it romantic or sentimental.

It yearned, it wanted, it longed, it needed - and expected, too, for somewhere, some time, a promise had been made. Some day I'll find you ... We were immersed in dreams. But since then music has changed. Its rhythms no longer swoon or sway or linger, they beat and pound and drive and the sound is so loud you have to hear it with your nerves. I was once leaving a party in New York because the music was so loud it was literally making me sick, and a black woman coming in said, 'What's wrong with you, honey?' and I told her. She said, 'But you don't listen to this kind of music with your ears, you hear it with your whole body, you listen with your nerves.' Which nerves? So my question is, when some person goes out to kill or torture or maim, can one reason be that he or she has been set for the crime by music that has driven them mad? Shamans have used music for thousands of years to create special moods, young men are prepared for killing by stirring marches, churches use inspirational music to hold their flocks together, and it is known that real spiritual teachers use music, but this is so delicate a thing that it is used carefully, by specialists, in special circumstances. But we deluge ourselves with music, of every kind, soak ourselves in it, often feed it direct into the brain with machines designed for this purpose - and we never even ask what effect it may be having. Well, I, for one - and I know there are others think it is time we do ask.


Excerpted from Under My Skin � Volume I of my Autobiography, to 1949.


� 1994 by Doris Lessing